For the past three decades, John*, 55, and his wife Phoebe*, 60, from Sydney’s central coast have tipped more than $30,000 a year into poker machines.
It began in hard times in the 1980s, when a cheap counter meal and five-cent spins were the only entertainment the couple could afford.
On weekends, John would return home “covered in dirt and soil” from digging trenches and take his wife to the small club around the corner as a special treat.
“It was like going to Vegas,” he says.
At first, the hand-operated machines only accepted small change, but this soon spiralled into a “very terrible existence”, John says, as Australia – now home to the worst gamblers in the developed world – relaxed betting limits and introduced shiny new computerised pokies that manipulate the mind “like a heroin addiction”.
In January, the ACT allowed its machines to accept $50 notes, up from the previous $20, contrasting calls from the Productivity Commission for a $1 limit per spin on poker machines, which are estimated to account for more than three-quarters of all gambling losses.
Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, a fierce opponent of pokies, told The New Daily that John and Phoebe’s story reveals “deep systemic failures”, which he blames in part on “jackpot junky” state governments “completely” beholden to the industry, and increasingly manipulative machines.
“It shows how insidiously addictive these machines are and how addictive they’ve become over the years,” Senator Xenophon says. “The machines of 30 years ago are very different.”
The vulnerable and the needy, as were John and Phoebe in the 80s, are the source of “so much” of the industry’s profit, he warns.
Three decades after the couple began betting five-cent pieces, the maximum bet per spin in their home state of NSW is $10 at a club or hotel, and limitless at a casino. As a result, John and Phoebe can easily burn through $500 in half an hour, and up to $5000 between them in a single night.
“You watch a machine, say one that has the pyramids as a feature. It’ll spin around and then you’ll have two come in and they’ll tempt you with music,” John explains.
“Maybe you’re going to get that third one. Maybe you’re going to get that fourth one.
“Very often it’ll show you how it just bounces off the screen. That doesn’t happen. It’s a computer. There’s no almost-wins in a computer. It’s entirely there to engage, to draw you in, and that’s what happens.”
After a recent “really bad” night, where they both lost about $2000 each, the couple have given up for what they hope is forever.
When contacted by The New Daily, John and Phoebe had not played the pokies for seven days.
The couple have tried to quit four times before, once lasting for more than a year, but have succumbed again to the flashing lights and spinning symbols, often betting even higher on their return.
A “shameful” relapse is probably inevitable, John admits, but he holds out hope.
“It’s a very painful way to live,” he says. “It’s like weight loss. You continually battle and give in to temptation.”
With the million eaten by the machines, the couple could have paid for their two children, who have both graduated, to study at university.
“If we hadn’t gambled all that money, it could have taken that burden off them,” he says.
And still, the pyramids spin.
“We know we’re being played… You just can’t fight it.”
*Names have been changed.
National gambling hotline: 1800 858 858